Perfect Sound Forever

Interview with the Pluralist:
Jane Siberry

by Ian Grey (August 1999)

Jane Siberry is not easy. She sings about dogs, God, angels, sex and more in a multi-octave voice unhampered by considerations of gravity. The style of one album seldom has anything to do with that of the next. Even her hair won't stay the same. So for those not actively keeping up with her career, a short re-introduction is necessary, lest one loses track of this incredibly fascinating singer/songwriter/conceptualist.

In just the last two years, Siberry sang on Joe Jackson's Heaven and Hell, wrote songs for k.d. lang's Drag and The Laura Nyro Tribute CD's. Started her own Internet-based record company, Sheeba Records ( after she dropped her label (Reprise, a division of Time Warner, Inc.). She's had songs collected in at least eleven CD's ranging from Lesbian Favorites to 96 Dog Songs - Celebrating Disney's 101 Dalmatians, or featured in the films UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD, THE CROW and THE SWEET HEREAFTER.

Meanwhile, last summer saw the release of her first book of prose-poems, Swan, and her participation in the ambitious "Suffragette Sessions" tour, alongside The Indigo Girls, Lisa Germano and members of Luscious Jackson and the Breeders. In the last few months, she released another book, ONE ROOM SCHOOLHOUSE, performed at the Central Park Joni Mitchell Tribute show, and has at least two CD's of new music set for released in Summer/Fall this year.

Yet despite the incredible quality attached to her almost inhuman level of productivity, Siberry is often treated by the media with the sort of respectful annoyance usually reserved for brilliant if slightly-deranged aunts. The fact is, Siberry's work defies boredom. Whether the country/folk airs of Bound by the Beauty, the out-there electro-pop of The Speckless Sky or the loose jazz of Maria, Siberry always gives, as mystery writer John D. MacDonald would say, "good value". Listening to several of her albums in series the eerie impression of a slinky one-person musical underground working justoutside the media radar. And, incredibly, in this age of Sting's, REM's and U2's, she has a sense of humor.

Example: the song "Temple" from the CD When I Was a Boy. A sparse piano plays over a truncated rap-beat sample, while a radio-tone voice coos "awww-gimme!" Over the coo comes a taunt, "You call that hard?/You call that cold?/That's nothing". Soon after, the entire track explodes into a thunderous wall-of-sound drum attack presided over by a voice that seemed equal parts over-excited madrigal and strung-out banshee. After this singular sonic cut-and-paste, come the sublime "Calling All Angels", a duet with k.d. lang that could serve as a template for how to write the perfect ballad.

Author Mikal Gilmore (NIGHT BEAT) speculates that "Some artists do what they do too well -- for example, Big Star. A great band with great songs and voices. But there was an innate intelligence and meticulous instinct in what they did that may have appealed to hard core pop fans more than the mainstream. Plus, they were on a very small label, working from a part of the country that wasn't seen as being "hip" at that moment. Cultural prejudice, in other words... It's as if the industry has moved back to its late 50s and early 60s mode of operation -- that is, turning out pop artists that are synonymous with pop hits: momentary breakthroughs that aren't expected to have long legs."

I interviewed Siberry in mid-town Manhattan prior to that days rehearsal of the "Suffragette Sessions" tour. Her demeanor is a measured one, each word chosen with extreme care. On her business goals with Sheeba Records, she states: "Freedom. To produce...on my own terms." When asked about her new company's ethical agenda, she dryly answers: "Isn't that what you asked me in the first place?

Q: In nearly every piece I've read on you, the word "quirky" comes up. Does this get on your nerves?

JS: "Quirky" has always bothered me--it seems dismissive of people being more themselves than not. And I think that's a very valuable, important thing. "Quirky" also seems more from the experimental music world, which I don't relate to at all... my guiding light is that I come from the heart. My main thrust is--the work has to be right, and I come second to the work... it takes a lot of the responsibility off me and the ego dissolves. Fear is not as great.

Q: With the way you exert total control on your work, move from genre to genre, and play with aspects of your sexual image, would it be accurate to compare you to Prince or Madonna?

JS: I think of myself and Madonna too. Doing things your own way, your own dreams. And coming to the same place--in different directions. Messing up in public, a bit. Being interpreted differently. Misunderstood.

Q: In terms of "messing up"--there seems to be a considerable lack of tales of substance abuse and generalized melodrama in your career.

JS: I guess it depends how overt you are. I used drugs and alcohol for a long time, in a quiet way. I quit drinking when I was doing When I Was a Boy which threw me into terrible states of madness. States when everything broke apart and had to be rebuilt...but my foundation is different now. But there is [a core of sanity]. Where does it come from? I don't know where that comes from.

Q: Do you think your constant stylistic changes "earn" you the "quirky" rep? I mean guys do it all the time. U2, for example, reinvent themselves all the time.

JS: They do reinvent themselves? U2? [authentically baffled at the concept.]

Q: Well, sound-wise--

JS: Oh--okay. I don't think women have any trouble [reinventing themselves]. They have a higher boredom threshold too... women get bored more easily with repetition. Although they understand WORK repetition--as in cleaning and things like that.

Q: Do you discourage political or feminist readings of your work?

JS: I think that anyone wanting to know my stance on feminism or anything can extrapolate from the value system put forth there [in the work]. It's all there, I just don't choose to pull out my yellow highlighter.

Q: About difficulties with your old record companies--

JS: The saving grace for me is that record companies have never considered anything I do a "hit"--[Chuckles]--so there isn't as much pressure. There IS that sense that they don't know what to do with me. I think that's a wonderful design, just [as long] as I, in an independent state of mind, keep doing what I hear in my head.

Q: So you aren't interested in being a "victim" of some "male"/corporate villain vs. female-artist scenario--

JS: --my brain doesn't even compute the male/female thing. [Wryly] I do think women are better at recreating themselves, though. We have more to work with. Hair color. Make up. But if I had facial hair, that would be wonderful! To keep changing it all the time.

Q: Frank Black (ex-leader of the Pixies) said in Musician magazine that it was nearly impossible to get a record major label deal past the advanced age of 35. You're about 40 now--

JS: --42! I'll probably be 43, too.

Q: But media-wise, how do issues of ageism effect you?

JS: I don't notice...I feel like I belong to this stream where people just grow and develop. Timeless. Like jazz musicians. The longer you live, the better you get. Do you really think people relate to that age thing? PEOPLE don't give a hoot if you're 35.

There's another interesting link between me and Madonna. Different angles, coming into our prime... I have more energy now--and I think I look younger than when I was 21! At 21, I'd look at myself and I looked so hard, so dull. And I'm getting leaner! [Laughs] Less flab on lots of levels.

When the hot "issue" of artist gender orientation is brought up, Siberry bristles just the slightest bit:

JS: It's boring. It's a distraction from the music. I don't want to know everyone else's sexual preferences! I don't think it's anyone's business if someone comes out of the closet or not. And you have to wade through all the [media] hoopla. [Playfully] Maybe I am a dyke! [Beat] Now I'm going into the closet.

The first thing you honor is your job. When I hear people who make political songs, and I know they're very musical people--to me, they're perhaps getting less millage from their gift. I think it can be less than an honoring of something really sacred--you have to try hard to keep it timeless, and classical.

Q: But just the title When I Was a Boy evokes gender play. And then on the CD fold, you're all, for lack of a better phrase, "babed-up". [Siberry, dressed in spare body armor, smirks provocatively from Boy's jewel box.]

JS: [Laughs] That was the point! But I have a perverse nature.

Q: Perverse for the sheer sake of being perverse?

JS: Sure. Yes. If only to balance things. [Smiles.]

About her "perverse" ways: Siberry acted upon her frustration over Reprise Records' inability to properly promote her work in a manner anathema to 99% of the musicians on Earth: she endeavored to get dropped by her label. "They wanted me to work with a producer and that severed any sense of loyalty. I realized they truly didn't understand what I was doing... so I took my leave." Her last Reprise-dominated CD, When I was a Boy, cost, according to Siberry, "about 150 thousand dollars".

Siberry's first Sheeba release, Teenager, cost less than twenty thousand dollars. Keeping Sheeba afloat has been a challenge Siberry has met with equal parts inspiration and humor. To help pay for future recordings, for example, she has conducted Internet and live-performance based "auctions" of studio time, allowing fans to get hand-printed lyrics in exchange for donations for studio time.

Q: You've also auctioned personal items--including the brassiere you wore on the cover of Maria. Have you raised any feminist hackles this way?

JS: [Chuckles] No.

Q: No?

JS: It's just a bra!

Q: Some might say you're "cheapening" yourself, that you're trading on your notoriety to get things done.

JS:Yes! I am! And I love it! Many people don't get me--they've never seen me before... [Laughs]... they don't know I'm funny... Like when I go to comedy clubs where it's cheap humor? It's like I get this... disease: I start to heckle! This vile, venomous language comes out of me! This isn't the girl who sang 'Calling All Angels', is it? [Pause] Oh, yes it is.

"I first heard her on the soundtrack of UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD; the song is, of course, "Calling All Angels." It's an astonishing song--it's about being helpless and hopeful at the same time, which pretty much sums up the human condition... then I bought When I Was a Boy... it's like she peeked into everyone's secret diaries, and sang the contents back to us with compassion. "I see you looking around at the people on the street/Well things aren't what they seem/If you push them hard enough you'll find that most of them do not feel worthy of love/Now how did that cometo be?"
--Kristen Mirenda, a 29-year-old web producer for Children's Television Workshop and Siberry fan.

Q: Is it possible to describe the average Siberry fan?

JS: I provide some kind of mirror, I think. [She's a bit uncomfortable with this fan business. Pauses.]

I guess they feel a similarity to the way I see, and that I'm putting words to it. There's nothing more important than words. To put things into words is a basic need. And humor let's you stand back a's really pleasurable.

Q: Artists as dissimilar as Iggy Pop, Kate Bush and Diamanda Galas have never really achieved massive fame--yet their work has had a profound effect on music in general. What is it about these artists and yourself that keeps mainstream popularity at a certain level?

JS: I don't know what the scope of my popularity will be, you know? I think to predict now is to limit things...we have our own particular lessons in our life, and some of them include things that you would not be allowed to work on if you were at a different level of fame. That's one thing.

Most people would probably say "Hope for occasional Top 40 status." Because I need that momentum to insure that I can put out the volume of workthat I want to."

Q: And if Sheeba doesn't pan out? Will you go back to a major label?

JS: If Sheeba fails as a company--it means it was a successful moment, and then Sheeba was meant to fail. It's attitude. It's supposed to fail so I could do other things. It's a success by being exactly what it's supposed to be. Even if it's defunct. I never expected to have my own record company; I don't know what to expect in the future. I'm slowly letting go of control and trusting the grand design of it.

In Siberry's lyrics, "the grand design" seems to manifest itself by the repetition of certain key words. References to "snow" and "sky" total 42; trees, 14; assorted animal designations(especially "dog"), 62. While "angel" appears 6 times, the formal nominative "God" makes a scant 2 appearances. The sum effect is a subtle sense of non-New Age "spirituality". Yet her attitude towards her hand-crafted philosophy is as unpretentious and filled the same combination of amusement and wonder as her work.

JS: There's nothing I can say like, "My parents were Buddhists" or whatever. The first church is nature. That's the first thing I ever trusted spiritually that was of a design far beyond my understanding.

Q: Are we talking about "God" with a capital "G" here?

JS: [Scowls campily] God is Dog. [Mischievously] I don't understand the question.

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